Utah Planned Parenthood challenges defunding order
DENVER (AP) — The Utah branch of Planned Parenthood asked a federal appeals court on Tuesday to stop the governor from cutting off funding to the organization, arguing the move was unconstitutional political retribution against an organization he opposes.
Gov. Gary Herbert already knew that investigations had cleared Planned Parenthood of illegally selling fetal tissue to researchers for profit when he ordered state agencies to stop distributing federal money to the organization last fall, Planned Parenthood lawyer Peggy Tomsic told a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
If the appeal court doesn’t undo the lower court’s decision, it would send the message that public officials may “punish their political enemies for exercising their constitutional rights,” Tomsic said.
Tyler Green of the Utah attorney general’s office argued that the organization was still under a cloud of suspicion after the release of secretly recorded videos showing out-of-state employees discussing fetal tissue from abortions when the order came down.
The appeals judges pressed Green to explain how the governor’s move was not intended to punish the organization for its associations, which would be a violation of its constitutional rights. “There’s no evidence Utah Planned Parenthood is endorsing the sale of fetuses,” Senior Judge David M. Ebel said.
Green said the governor has the right to end at-will contracts.
The appeals court did not immediately decide Tuesday whether to extend its emergency order keeping the federal money flowing. The panel asked pointed questions of both sides, but the judges gave no indication of when they will rule.
The governor has said he was offended by the callousness of the discussion shown on the videos, which sparked uproar among Republican leaders around the country. Several states have moved to strip Planned Parenthood of contracts and federal money, and the organization has sued in states like Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana. Most court decisions have allowed money to keep flowing.
In Utah, though, U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups decided the governor can block the money because the state has an interest in avoiding the perception of corruption. While he acknowledged the Utah organization hasn’t broken any laws, he said it has associated with other Planned Parenthood entities accused of illegally selling fetal tissue to researchers for profit.
But the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah says it did nothing wrong and has never participated in fetal donation programs. Its lawyers contend Herbert decided to end $275,000 in contracts as a political move aimed at appealing to people who oppose abortion. Planned Parenthood also said that defunding its programs that serve teenagers and low-income people will leave thousands of people at risk.
The blocked federal funding is a small portion of the local organization’s $8 million budget. It also receives money through federal contracts, fees from clients, insurance and contributions.
Multiple investigations by Congress and several states have cleared the organization of doing anything illegal. A Texas grand jury also cleared Planned Parenthood and instead indicted two of the activists who made the undercover videos.
Whitehurst reported from Salt Lake City.